Contributed by Howard Schaffer, founder and operator, Howard Schaffer Media Marketing

Being successful in the foodservice business does not come easy, especially these days with our challenging economic conditions. Expenses have never been higher, as salaries, rent and the cost of food and transportation rise significantly. Restaurant operators simply cannot afford to have empty seats because not only will this fail to bring in revenue, but it is increasing expenses through wasted food and empty space. This is where the significance of building a strong connection with your local media comes into play.

The restaurant industry is a highly competitive environment where the success of the business relies upon the right balance between quality food, solid customer service and high exposure to the public. The food shouldn't be a setback because that's what the chefs are appointed to do; quality customer care shouldn't be questioned because your aim is to employ an efficient yet friendly staff. This leaves focusing on making the public aware of your establishment. The name of the game is "creating a buzz." You want people to recognize your name, who you are and why your establishment is worth the time to visit.

Deciding on a route for publicity. Public relations is often confused with advertising, but in reality, there are considerable differences between the two. Advertising is when a company pays for ad space. They know exactly what the ad consists of and when it will air or be published. Public relations, on the other hand, is a means of gaining editorial coverage, a.k.a. "earned media," which ultimately reaches the consumer in an unbiased and informative way.

Why is local media coverage highly beneficial?
  1. It personalizes your restaurant and your story. Consumers will be familiarized with who you are and what you stand for. Think of the "consumer." Story angles must be creative enough to attract newcomers, while building credibility for your regulars. They should be specific and unique to your restaurant such as stressing the fact that you have a variety of burgers rather than just saying you have great food. Newsworthy matters include awards, expansions, new hires, an updated menu and even a renovation.
  2. It adds credibility. As opposed to paid advertising, the editorial decision makers of any particular publication or television show are not compelled to cover your event or publish your news just because you sent them details. In the eyes of the consumer, this is why a published article or a broadcast story on television news is more credible than most advertisements. People tend to be more believing of what they read in newspapers and magazines, as well as what they hear on the radio and see on television. When a recognized radio personality is making conversation about your restaurant on-air, it is very effective in a friendly and supportive manner; some even say it will do more than a stand-alone ad. When a noted columnist in your daily hometown newspaper talks up your specialty for which your restaurant is best known, his/her credibility endorsing your establishment will reinforce the paid print ads which should appear elsewhere in that publication.
  3. Instead of a narrow focus, it broadens your reach. With your name being mentioned in various media outlets, it is now possible to reach the readership of various newspapers and magazines, as well as the viewership of television and listeners of radio stations. As opposed to billboards--which is a form of advertising, as you are paying for that ad to be seen only by the people who drive by it--being mentioned in local media can mean attracting customers on a wider scale. Full attention is given to the article or segment, whereas the billboard is only seen for a few short moments.
  4. It establishes you as an authority in your industry. When a source is often quoted, consumers tend to develop the idea that the source is a connoisseur or authority in his or her industry. Educating the media of your background can also be used to encourage them to use you as a reference in the future.
  5. It provides awareness and fosters customer loyalty. Most important of all, using different outlets creates publicity for your restaurant. Your restaurant's name is in the marketplace and reassures customers of the great services you are offering instead of what the competitor is presenting.

Getting started. Building and maintaining a cordial business relationship with newsroom decision makers can be the key to successful PR, which can lead to the success of your restaurant. Having your restaurant featured in local newspapers is a great place to start. This reaches potential customers who are in your immediate local market. A grand opening is not the only time that media coverage is newsworthy, but it can also be appealing to the local townspeople when you're hosting special events like wine tastings or fundraisers. Once you feel satisfied with the local coverage your restaurant is receiving, you can feature it in regional publications. This is perfect for reaching those who are situated right outside of your direct area. Most regional publications cover a few counties or in the same area. Residents of neighboring towns in your region besides your own will likely be eager to try a new restaurant in the vicinity.

Just because you are located in a small town and have a single location, does not mean your establishment isn't fit to be published in national media outlets. It is important to keep track of health and food trends to see if your restaurant can fit into those trends. A trend you might read about in a national newspaper could entail how organic foods are being used more frequently in restaurants; you can relate to this by sharing how you made the transition to strictly organic foods and how the community valued it and/or how it had an effect on the number of people coming to dine. Another area that should not be overlooked is travel publications. Even if your restaurant is not located in a typical travel destination, you can take find different story angles that can fit your situation such as saying that your restaurant is the best kept secret that is hidden away in a quaint little town.

Whether you decide to hire a PR agency or do it yourself, the goal is to make professional contacts at the local television and radio stations, along with the local and regional newspapers. Your persistence and consistency in sending press releases regarding your eatery is sure to bring you great success in attracting new faces.

Howard Schaffer is founder and operator of Howard Schaffer Media MarketingAlbany, N.Y. With twenty years experience in regional food marketing throughout the country, he is a noted authority on media relations and has been published nationally in academic publications and trade journals.
Kitchen Stadium once again opens its doors to find a new culinary warrior in the sizzling primetime series "The Next Iron Chef," as announced by Bob Tuschman, senior vice president of programming and production for Food Network. Hosted by Alton Brown ("Good Eats," "Iron Chef America"), the reality competition premieres on Oct. 4 at 9 p.m. ET and will challenge ten top chefs from around the country in a series of demanding situations, testing their culinary skills and mental toughness.

"It's thrilling to see what these ten top chefs can create when pushed to their limits in this series," Tuschman said in a press statement. "These world-class chefs display extraordinary culinary skills and creativity as they battle it out for the supreme title of Iron Chef."

The ten contestants are:

The winner will join the ranks of Mario Batali, Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto and Michael Symon as a member of Iron Chef America.